Priorities and Mistakes: Hard Lessons from a Career Securing Fissile Material

By Matthew bunn

February 22, 2024

IMAGE: “Blacksmiths of Modernity” mural by Halyna Zubchenko and Hryhorii Pryshedko, 1974, Kyiv. Photo by thadiusb on reddit.


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Matthew Bunn worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1994-1996 as part of a long career working to minimize and secure fissile material. He shares lessons from approaches to securing uranium during the post-Soviet years.



MATTHEW BUNN: When I left government, I intended to write an article which unfortunately I never got around to which was going to be called “Mistakes Made by Me.”

A number of the biggest mistakes we made were my idea.

In 1994, I got involved in the effort to help the states of the former Soviet Union beef up security and accounting for their nuclear material that could be used by, you know, if it fell into the hands of terrorists if it fell into the hands of a proliferating state.

I had directed a study at the National Academy of what to do with all the plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons.

That was the original question. But as we started looking into it we realized there is a much broader problem with the collapse of the Soviet Union with control and adequate security for plutonium, highly enriched uranium whether it came from nuclear weapons or not.

We ended up recommending a broad security and transparency regime for plutonium and highly enriched uranium. And then when we finished the study the National Academy essentially loaned me to the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House to try to implement some of those recommendations.

We ended up having a meeting with the Chief Nuclear Regulator of Ukraine at that time.

Toward the end of the conversation, I said “is there any highly enriched uranium that you’re regulating in Ukraine?”

I thought the answer was going to be no.

But he said, “yeah, we got highly enriched uranium at several places. We got one place with 75 kilos of 90% enriched highly enriched uranium powder and it’s…there’s hardly anybody guarding it and it’s really kind of a worry.”

And I was like, “what?”

And he said, “yeah, your people know about this.”

I said, “who knows about this?”

And he gave me a name over the Department of Energy.

I said, “has the United States ever offered to buy this material from Ukraine?”

He said, “no.”

I said, “if the United States wanted to buy this material would Ukraine be interested in selling?”

He said, “yeah, maybe if the price was right we’re not really using it at the moment.”

I said, “if the United States wanted to make an offer, who should we talk to?”

He said, “well, you should talk to me.”

Now, I was not in a position at that time to just, you know whip out a checkbook and say, how about a million dollars? But after the meeting, I went down the hall and I called the person at the Department of Energy and I said, “did you know about this material?”

He said, “yeah, I knew about this material.”

Now, he was in charge of a program to help a couple of the former Soviet states beef up the security and accounting at nuclear sites where this kind of material existed.

He said, “well, we’re going to spend a few years, you know beefing up better security and accounting for this material.”

I said to him, “we might not have several years. Have you thought about getting the stuff the heck out of there?”

He said, “no, that’s not my job. My job is building better security systems.”

I said, “no, no, no, no, no, no. The reason for building the better security systems is to keep the stuff from getting stolen.”

One of the lessons there is don’t bake just one solution as the only approach in your thinking because it may blind you to other options that may actually be better solutions to a particular problem.

Program managers are assigned to lead a program doing a particular thing. They aren’t told think about whether your program is the right answer for the thing that needs to be done or whether something else entirely. That’s not what they’re told to do. They’re told to take a particular hill and if that hill is no longer relevant to the wider war or there’s a different way to win the battle than taking that hill, that’s not their job to think about.

Unfortunately, by the time I had left government, I realized that, oh my God, we never did anything about that.

There was a lot going on in 1994 related to security of nuclear material, and all three of us collectively dropped the ball. No offer was made to Ukraine at that time to remove the material.

Ultimately, during the nuclear security summit process decades later in the Obama administration that material was fully removed from Ukraine. It no longer poses a possibility of being stolen.

Another lesson is keep your eye on the top priorities. Write them down. Don’t let any of the things on that priority list slide off the table. Be gentle in your judgments of other people they’re probably doing their best.

When you’re in government you’re just running from one thing to the next and you have relatively limited ability to draw back and say, wait a minute, what about that idea over there? When you’re focused in on these ideas right here.

Frank von Hippel was my boss for part of the time I was at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. And at one point Frank and I were racing down the hall to a meeting and he said, “Matt, what we’re suffering from is thought deprivation.”

Because you’re just so busy when you’re in government.

After leaving government Frank wrote a very interesting little article in Physics Today which is called “Big Government Little Analysts” which describes this difficulty that government has sort of drawing back and looking off to the side for other possibilities and looking outside the box as the saying goes.

And that’s the real value of people outside the government because not constrained by all running the programs and of course not having as much information n about what’s really going on as the people in government do to be fair, they can come up with a new idea and sort of lob it over the transom and if they have the right connections, sometimes that new idea turns out to be a good one.

Honestly, we made a lot of mistakes.

Almost all of those mistakes had the form of not thinking hard enough about what it would look like from the point of view of the other side, whether it was the Russians or another country.

Thinking that I was doing the right thing I came up with a proposal which the government adopted to have the two governments do a joint report to the two presidents on what the next steps to deal with this problem of insecure nuclear material should be.

And my thought was that this report would basically you know, endorse the plan that had already been drafted by the scientists on both sides.

What I failed to do is think through what would happen on the Russian side.

If you have a report that’s going to the President that inevitably means that all relevant agencies will be involved in that report, including the FSB, the successor to the KGB.

They had been getting increasingly upset about the fact that there were Americans from the labs traipsing over secret Russian nuclear facilities.

Part of their job for decades had been keeping American spies out of those facilities.

So this had been making the KGB increasingly upset and this process of writing a report to the present gave them the golden opportunity to seize control of the process and put a stop to all of this madness of American scientists traipsing all over the place.

So this process of a report to the presidents almost killed the Lab to Lab MPC&A program.

It did manage to survive but that was another way where another big mistake that I contributed to in the Clinton administration.

At these times when things look very dark find ways to maintain your optimism.

You should also not assume that the way things are right now between the United States and Russia or the United States and China is the way it’s always going to be.

In 1983 when the Soviet Union walked out of arms control talks, it really looked as though arms control was dead as an enterprise.

And yet a few years later you had the great breakthroughs to real reductions for the first time real onsite inspections for the first time.

I think it’s important still to stockpile ideas and that’s also a very important role for non-government people at this time because again, government people are running from one meeting to the next.

They may not have that much time to really think through well, what might be possible 10 years from now?

We need to have a set of ideas ready to go so that when governments are again able to talk to each other and willing to talk to each other you’ve got something there for them to talk about.

Things happen and we need to, we need to be thinking about it and preparing for it and coming up with ideas.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.



Matthew Bunn
Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Matthew Bunn is the James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research interests include nuclear theft and terrorism; nuclear arms control and strategic stability; nuclear proliferation and measures to control it; the future of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle; and innovation in energy technologies. Before coming to Harvard, Bunn served as an adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as a study director at the National Academy of Sciences, and as editor of Arms Control Today. He is the author or co-author of more than 25 books or major technical reports (most recently Revitalizing Nuclear Security in an Era of Uncertainty), and over 150 articles in publications ranging from Science to The Washington Post.

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